'I had a lot of dreams': How the pandemic upended millions of women's careers

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'We're really concerned about scarring, permanent scarring, from this crisis,' said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

On Monday, International Women's Day, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen issued a warning that the harm done to women in the work force by the COVID-19 pandemic could leave permanent scars — and American women agree.

Speaking with Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Yellen said, "I think it's absolutely tragic, the impact that this crisis has had on women, especially low-skilled women and minorities."

She added that it was "extremely unfair" that women in the work force had been affected more than men, noting that the discrepancy was caused by mass layoffs in women-dominated industries, as well as women forced to leave jobs to take care of their children after school closures.

"We're really concerned about scarring, permanent scarring, from this crisis," Yellen said.

U.S. News and World Report cited a Pew Research Center report that showed 11.5 million women lost their jobs between February and May of 2020 as the new virus emerged and the country locked down — but only 9 million men did. The discrepancy is underscored by data showing women make up less than half of the U.S. work force.

Experts say women haven't been hit so hard by an economic recession in decades. Only 55.9% of American women are employed or actively looking for employment during the pandemic.

Emily Riché of Madisonville, Louisiana, about 30 miles north of New Orleans, said she was devastated by the loss of her job in the event-planning sector at the top of the pandemic.

Workers in her industry are disproportionately women, making up around 80%; Riché noted that before she was laid off, 24 of the 25 employees at her workplace were women. For several years, she had worked as an independent contractor doing event planning for an international destination management company in New Orleans, but in January 2020, she was promoted to her dream job: a full-time production lead position.

"When I got that promotion it was so exciting for me," she said. Her three children were 18, 11, and 7, and, she said, "It was my time to be like, 'I don't need to be here being mommy so much, and I can kind of spread my wings.'"

But 43 days later, as the pandemic spread, Riché was laid off. She was denied unemployment benefits because she hadn't been in her position long enough to qualify for them.

"Then it did get hard," she said, explaining her husband had just months previously started his own law firm and wasn't taking a paycheck.

"So then my income is gone, and he was just living off of settlements, no salary," she said. "We had to ask our parents for money at one point. We had no money, just like, $20 in the bank. I mean, he's an attorney, and I'm a fully capable professional — it was a shock."

She still mourns the loss of her job, and is unsure if she'll ever return to the industry. "I had a lot of dreams in the event industry and there were a lot of paths for women," she said. "I just felt like I was in the right place for the first time in my life."

Kristin Aljoe of Boerne, Texas, was also forced to walk away from a dream job to care for her three small children.

For 10 years, she had volunteered at a local nature center as an educator for children, and was finally offered a position as a nontraditional educator for preschool nature programs. After coordinating her curriculum and investing in materials, she saw her plans derailed by COVID-19. She told the nature center she couldn't accept the position because she had to stay home and oversee her children's virtual learning.

Aljoe said she constantly feels guilt about "what I'm not doing right and what I'm supposed to be doing more of" as a stay-at-home parent.

"I've lost my freedom to do anything, because I have at least one child with me at all times," she says she told her husband. "But what has changed in your life, while I've lost everything that I've spent 10 years working on?"

Meanwhile, the nature center restructured its programming during the pandemic, so she's not sure the opportunity will ever come back.

Sierra Regian of Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania, was a home health nurse, in an industry that the Boston Globe reports is 88% staffed by women, and raising three children when the pandemic hit.

After taking some time off in August 2020 for a surgical procedure, she found that overseeing hybrid learning for her children, one of whom has complicated health problems, made it impossible to return to work.

Regian said she had "inadvertently become principal, teacher, lunch lady, custodian and counselor," and her client's family decided to go with another company. There weren't any shifts available that could accommodate an "ever-changing, homeschool/in-school" schedule. She isn't sure whether she'll ever be able to return.

Kaitlin Marshall of Fort Collins, Colorado, was laid off from two jobs in the food service industry — 70% of American food service industry workers are women — in March 2020.

"It was so scary, because I support myself independently and I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn't have much of a savings built up, [and] I was very much living in a paycheck-to-paycheck situation," she said.

While she applied for and eventually received unemployment, she said Colorado's unemployment system was extremely glitchy and difficult to navigate, and many of her friends — including those with children — were unable to get unemployment.

"I worked with a lot of women in the service industry, and we got the brunt of [the pandemic]," Marshall said. "I think it's really set back some of the progress we've made for women."

She had to move into her mother's one-bedroom apartment to survive until her unemployment benefits kicked in, since she couldn't afford groceries. But the experience has inspired her to go back to school for a degree, with hopes of becoming a lawyer to help marginalized groups.

"[The pandemic] made me realize how badly the poor are treated in this country, and how much the rich are able to benefit from the labor of the poor," she said. "If you look at this pandemic, the people who have office jobs and benefits get to stay home. But then you look at poor people, people without citizenship, without vaccines, they're expected to put themselves on the line."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.